Become a learning worker by creating intermediate packets
Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 10 minutes
When you make the transition from knowledge worker to learning worker, you’ll go through a bunch of paradigm shifts. One such shift is continually seeking feedback, making sure you’re on track, and producing (re)usable blocks of work.
Enter intermediate packets, my favorite tool to do effective knowledge work. Coined by Personal Knowledge Management expert Tiago Forte, this single concept has made my productivity increase tenfold.
Tiago argues that intermediate packets enable us to bend the curves of productivity, getting into a flow state more easily and often, therefore producing more value as knowledge workers. From experience, I can tell intermediate packets work.
Doing knowledge work often means that you’re creating something that can be used as an input for someone else’s knowledge work. Through a chain of interpretations of information (by different professionals) that then act on it, knowledge work changes reality.
In my view, all knowledge workers should train themselves to narrow their scope of work. By taking a close look at what knowledge work consists of, you’ll see it’s possible to break it up into smaller pieces and ship more often.
Let’s dive into how intermediate packets enable you to become a learning worker.
What are intermediate packets?
The basic idea of intermediate packets is very simple: they’re the smallest part of your work. Whereas projects are by definition a series of tasks you cannot finish in one sitting, intermediate packets are tasks that you can do in one sitting, and that together create one (mini) deliverable.
Let’s look at a concrete example: writing a business case for a client (something I used to do daily as an account manager).
Instead of seeing it as one block of work, I’d identify the individual parts of the business case; rereading the request for proposal, brainstorm a bit, write an outline, start gathering additional information, write a bit, restructure the outline, etc. I treat each of these parts as building blocks for the final deliverable: a solid business case that considers all the client’s requirements.
By limiting each part’s scope and not worrying about the final deliverable, my ADHD brain finally gets to focus on what’s important: the next building block necessary to bring the project forward.
Once you start treating your work as individual building blocks, you’ll also begin to think about ways to package them. A package is nothing else than a product that can be easily used later, but it’s a step that many skip.
Before getting into the how of intermediate packets, let’s first have a look at why you should create them. Throughout, I’ll share how this paradigm shift has helped me become a more effective knowledge worker.
Why create intermediate packets?
There are several reasons to create intermediate packets, but the most important one is probably because attention spans have steadily been dwindling due to constant interruptions.
Working in a team means that there’s always someone trying to get your attention — via email, phone, instant messages, among others. Unfortunately, distributed work mostly hasn’t led to asynchronous communication (yet).
Doing valuable work in such an environment is near impossible — if you rely on deep work. If you instead narrow the scope of your work, you’ll be able to deliver small bursts of value in intervals, making interruptions less devastating.
In an ideal world, deep work is the norm, and you’re interrupted less often. But even then, narrowing your work scope by creating intermediate deliverables is a huge help. After all, as knowledge workers, we only provide value when we deliver output others can use.
Let’s dive into my reasons for leaning on this practice.
Intermediate packets help me provide value more often
Knowledge workers are in the business of ideas; they’re our inputs and outputs. The only moment we provide value is when it serves as an input for someone else’s work. So, if you only give that input intermittently, you’re less useful.
We all have limited time and attention, so there’s a maximum of how much we can output in total. But there’s another dimension to take into consideration: the output rate.
By creating work in small, independent building blocks, I can now share my work more often. An outline doesn’t sit idly in my note-taking app anymore; I actively share it and gather others’ feedback. A drafted slide deck is likewise shared, becoming more valuable while I sleep as others comment on it.
Similarly, I now treat disruptions in my day as markings between work blocks in which I create intermediate packets. Every time I speak to someone, I use a few minutes to show my work and get feedback. By working intensely in short timeslots and actively bringing those ideas into conversations I have after, I can provide value more often.
Intermediate packets make me interruption-proof
When working with complex problems — as most knowledge workers do — you need to ‘load’ several ideas into your working memory. Making sense of ideas and connecting them to ideas from your long-term memory is mentally taxing, not to mention fragile.
Any interruption will let at least part of your working memory crash, which means you need to load that part back up after the interruption. Research shows that any switching between tasks can disrupt working memory up to 25 minutes.
By creating intermediate packets — thus narrowing the scope of my work — I’ve been able to reduce my cognitive load. There’s less in my working memory, and as I externalize most of what’s in my memory, distractions have less of an impact.
Returning to my task, I can jog my memory by reviewing what I was creating and finish the intermediate packet. Often, I can finish up a deliverable in minutes after an interruption, meaning I can close that loop and turn my attention elsewhere.
Intermediate packets help me create regardless of circumstances
Knowledge work can be done in many different settings, but that doesn’t mean all types of work can be done in all settings. Some tasks require a larger attention and time investment than others.
If you’re able to determine how much attention and time you’ll need for a task, you gain the ability to match different types of tasks to your current time, focus, and energy level.
The idea of intermediate packets helps me focus on what I want to produce by the end of a working session. By considering how I currently feel and how much time I’ll have, I can pick an appropriate task to work on. Often, I choose an existing intermediate packet and turn it into a new, more valuable building block (for example, progressively summarizing highlights and notes or turning reading notes into a full-fledged evergreen note).
Even if I’m interrupted halfway, I will still have created value as I’ve externalized my thinking. I can quickly pick up where I left off by taking 30 seconds to reread what I made last.
Intermediate packets keep me motivated
I’ve abandoned more projects than I’d like to admit, simply because I lost the why out of sight. Working alone and not sharing any work, it’s easy to get off track and lose motivation.
We tend to get motivated by results and feedback. So, the more often we finish a valuable piece of work and share it with others, the more our motivation rises.
Once I internalized the idea of quick feedback loops and started to work with intermediate packets, I became much more productive. I no longer worry about the big picture, willingly letting feedback nudge me in another direction.
By integrating feedback, my perspective changes, and I can think in ways I couldn’t previously. Often, this leads to surprises as I go through my notes and find new insights, leading to more motivation as I dig deeper into topics.
Intermediate packets can immensely help people with ADHD. From my own experience, I can share that projects are often confusing because I can’t see the beginning, middle, and end. But by reducing my scope and getting regular feedback, I stay engaged and can keep an overview of the activity at hand.
Intermediate packets help my future self
Creating intermediate packets is not just useful for other people. Everything you do as a digital knowledge worker can be saved, which means you can store away pieces of work for later use. Effectively, this means that whatever you create has the potential to make the life of your future self easier.
I always make sure that my future self can easily find any intermediate deliverable I create. All I do is save the work in a place where I know I’ll be able to find it and tag it with metadata to make retrieval easier. As Roam Research is my note-taking weapon of choice, adding metadata is a breeze.
When you document insights and make them easy to find, you can start recycling them in different contexts. Every time you dig up an idea and try to apply it to a situation, you’re refining your understanding. You’re essentially experimenting with the ideas in your knowledge base, weeding out the stuff that doesn’t work and elaborating on the stuff that does. Over time, you gain a better insight into what works in your field, enabling you to share these refined insights with others, but most importantly: yourself.
Creating packets of content for my future self has paid dividends over time. I tend to overestimate how much I’ll remember and am terrible at guessing what I’ll need in the future. The safest way to pass ideas through time is to create an artifact that my future self can understand and reuse.
Intermediate packets get me more and better feedback
While I believe deep work is important, so are taking breaks and getting feedback. If you narrow your scope with intermediate packets, you can share your work more often. Instead of looking at interruptions as hindrances, see them as moments to gather quick feedback on what you just worked on.
By sharing your work in smaller chunks, you make it easier for others to provide feedback. Nobody wants to receive dozens of pages for review that they have to spend hours on. So, package up parts of a project and share freely to get more regular feedback.
Asking input on smaller packages of work often results in better feedback quality. When people know they’re looking at an early draft, they’re usually more willing to be open about their thinking. If a piece looks too polished, people generally don’t want to shake things up too much. But an outline or a first draft? You’re much more likely to receive honest and to-the-point feedback.
Early and regular feedback has another advantage: it makes sure you’re on track. In the past, I used to hammer away at projects for weeks on end, only to discover upon presentation to my management that I had not always interpreted the requirements correctly.
The idea of early and regular feedback has been the key to many startup successes, where agile working in short sprints has become the norm. By showing their work often and gathering feedback, teams can better align their product with their audience’s needs. Similarly, when you work in public, the short feedback loop keeps you on track to creating something valuable.
Intermediate packets make heavy lifts a thing of the past
Over time, your knowledge base can become so expansive that you can provide value purely from packets you created in the past. This is the point where your stored knowledge starts to compound on itself and pay dividends.
Whenever I encounter a new problem, my first instinct is to check my second brain (note-taking app) to see if I’ve solved similar challenges in the past. As I’m revisiting, combining, and rewriting old notes (intermediate packets), I become a curator of my previous work. Building on bits and pieces from the past, I can bootstrap new work.
Intermediate packets enable you to become more and more productive. Everything you did in the past can serve as input for future work. By creating templates for recurring tasks, you free up a lot of mental space to do creative work.
Take managing projects, for example, something that’s usually a string of heavy lifts. I used to suck at project management, but the more I worked with experienced project managers and had to act as one, the more resources I created that I could reuse in the future. By learning from what did and didn’t work, I slowly chipped away at a repository of project management templates and processes.
As all of this knowledge lives externally (in my second brain), I have much more mental space to do creative work — like solving new problems I encounter in executing the project plan.
How to create intermediate packets
Hopefully, it’s clear by now that intermediate packets are not a step in the work process; they are the work. The trick is to embed the packaging within doing the work so that it doesn’t cause overhead.
To package work mid-stream, you need to produce in an environment that does much of the packaging for you. For digital knowledge workers, the best environments are note-taking apps; they provide the tools for you to create and reuse previous work while enabling you to share your work for feedback and to provide value at any moment. My favorite is Roam Research, but Notion is also a strong option due to its sharing and commenting features.
Alternatively, it’s possible to use different tools to share your work and gather feedback. Apps like Google Docs and Office 365 enable easy sharing and commenting, but the drawback is that this feedback is removed from where you (ideally) do the majority of your work; your note-taking app. The key to success is to gather and integrate feedback as effortless as possible; otherwise, you still end up with intermediate packets scattered around your digital environment.
In future posts, I’ll dig deeper into the logistics of how I create and share intermediate packets. For now, I recommend you check out my 5-part series on how I take smart digital notes. In it, you’ll see how I take knowledge through different stages, each stage producing intermediate packets.